Nearly 200 Democratic delegates from the Carolinas are flocking to Denver this week, optimistic about Barack Obama's chances of winning their states but worried that a relative lack of experience and lingering racial sentiments could hurt him.
An Observer survey of Carolinas delegates also shows that most don't expect Hillary Clinton supporters to desert the party, but the delegates don't want her husband playing that big a role in the campaign.
The Carolinians will be among more than 4,400 delegates at a convention expected to make history by making Obama the first African American nominee of a major party. The convention starts Monday at Denver's Pepsi Center. It ends Thursday with Obama's acceptance speech at Invesco Field.
“I'm extremely excited,” says delegate Bridget Tripp, an African American from Columbia. “I can remember watching the civil rights movement on TV. So this is huge for me … watching the transition from the old guard to the new.”
Tripp, 49 and a real estate agent, is one of dozens of Carolinians attending their first convention.
“There are probably more first-time delegates than we've ever had,” says Jerry Meek, North Carolina's Democratic chairman. “A lot of it is just the number of new people who came into the process through Sen. Obama.”
Of the roughly half of Carolinas delegates responding to the survey, Obama was the early favorite of most, followed by Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards. Asked to rate their excitement about Obama now, two-thirds pegged it at “10,” the top of the scale.
The Illinois senator is trying to become the first Democratic candidate to carry either of the Carolinas since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Many delegates, particularly in North Carolina, say he has a good chance.
“(There are) a number of very specific reasons,” says Ed Turlington, a Raleigh lawyer. “The campaign is making a major emphasis in North Carolina.”
Delegates are usually optimistic at convention time. A poll released last week by Raleigh's Civitas Institute showed McCain leading Obama in the state 46 percent to 40 percent, with a 4-point margin of error.
But more than previous Democratic nominees, Obama already has poured resources into North Carolina. His appearance in Raleigh last week was his second in the state since May's primary. His campaign also has spent more than $2 million on TV ads, opened 16 offices and registered thousands of voters. He is pulling ads in North Carolina during the convention but says that's not an indication that he's not doing well here.
Since January, N.C. Democrats have netted more than 166,000 new voters, compared to 19,000 for Republicans.
The Clinton factor
When Clinton suspended her campaign in June, delegate Marc Friedland of Charlotte helped circulate a petition to put her name in nomination. Most consider that a formality. Friedland's not so sure.
“According to party rules, we don't have a candidate until the votes are counted,” says Friedland, 59, owner of the just-closed Talley's Green Grocery in Charlotte. “So anything can happen.”
His wife, Jyoti, who's not a delegate, plans to join other Clinton supporters in Denver protesting Obama's nomination. While some Carolinas delegates worry that such disgruntled Democrats will stay home or even support Republican John McCain, most believe Democrats will unify.
“Sen. Obama won the primary, and he's the candidate,” says Clinton delegate Melissa Reed of Raleigh, a Planned Parenthood administrator. “Once voters, especially women voters, are educated on the differences between McCain and Obama … they'll feel very strongly that their interests are best met when they vote for Sen. Obama.”
Carolinas delegates say Obama should talk about ending the war in Iraq and eight years of Republican rule.
“A vote for McCain is a vote for more Bush-Cheney,” says Bill Georgiou, 28, of Kannapolis, who works in hospitality management.
But by large margins, most delegates say Obama should hone in on one issue: the economy. An Observer/NewsChannel 36 Carolinas Poll found 44 percent of Carolinians rank the economy as their top concern, far ahead of anything else.
“That's kind of the kitchen-table issue that affects most people's lives directly,” says Vinod Thomas of Cornelius, who works at a movie theater. “With gas prices and everything, people are starting to see that the decisions made by their elected leaders have tangible effects on their day-to-day lives.”
When delegate Carol Peterson talks about Obama, she usually hears one concern: his lack of experience.
“That's the first thing people say when his name comes up,” says Peterson, 67, a Buncombe County commissioner. “I don't think they're thinking about the experience he's had in state government. … in problem-solving at so many different levels.”
Among N.C. delegates, experience – or public perception of it – is seen as Obama's biggest vulnerability. Delegates also worry about the rumors about Obama's religion or his potential “Swift-boating” by GOP adversaries.
But others say he also faces resistance because of his race.
“It's unfortunate, but I think we're still a pretty racist society,” says Pricey Harrison, a white delegate and state lawmaker from Greensboro. “I've worked the polls. I know how some of my constituents feel about the issue.”
S.C. delegate Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a black state legislator from Columbia, says there are “a lot of people who will not admit publicly that they are not supporting Sen. Obama because of race.”
“So they look for other reasons for the lack of support,” she says, “inexperience (or) ‘We don't know enough about him.'”
One delegate fired up for Obama is Grace Liem, a nurse practitioner from Concord. With the war, the economy, and what she calls the stolen election of 2000, she's ready for change.
“I'm tired of being lied to by this government; I'm tired of my rights being taken away,” she says in a breathless voice. “It's my country. I need to take it back.”